a good notebook

It’s not just new pens that I covet. I really like a good notebook too.

Like a lot of people I use notebooks in meetings. And I make to-do lists, always lots of to-dos. But I sometimes make meeting notes and lists digitally, especially if I want to circulate them to other people. However, I haven’t given up the meeting notebook.

But it’s the research project notebook that I like most. For me, the notebook signifies research. No matter how many other gadgets I drag around – cameras, digital voice recorders, ipads, phones, laptops – the trusted notebook is still the research wardrobe essential. Have notebook, am dressed for any research occasion. You see, the notebook is the tool de jour of the ethnographer; most of us wouldn’t seen in public without one. The notebook is the LBD of the observant participant world (s).

There’s nothing quite like starting off a new research project in a new notebook. I love it. It always makes the project feel ‘real’. In front of my eyes the blank pages just waiting to be filled up with – well – things I don’t yet know about, things yet to occur, things I imagine might happen, and things that I couldn’t dream of. The notebook is a kind of material representation of all of these things yet to come.

Everybody has their own notebook type. I used to be quite fond of Moleskines with their super smooth paper and their super smooth ersatz leather covers. But they all looked the same. After completing a few years’ worth of projects and a few years’ worth of notebooks it took a lot of ineffectual searching and swearing and flicking through book after black-covered book to dig out the particular one that contained the field notes I was after. I did buy a red-covered one at one stage (and there are now other colours) – but when I was really seriously using them, the Moleskine options were largely black, black and black.

precarious pile of some (not all) used and new notebooks in my home office

precarious pile of used and new notebooks in my home office

I’ve switched my notebook allegiance now to a brand that has many different kinds of covers. Decomposition Books – they have idiosyncratic drawings inside and outside and they come in a range of colours. The paper is not so smooth. But it’s recycled, so there is a small, virtuous glow about not using up a new tree each time a new project starts. (Yes I know it takes a lot of energy to recycle paper, but I’ll be onto the first low-energy recycled notebook I can find, as long as I can differentiate the projects by different coloured or designed front covers.)

Occasionally people give me notebooks as presents. I do feel obliged to use them. I’ve had four different gifted notebooks for the four different summer schools that I’ve recently attended/been researching and I now find the mismatched set of them less than aesthetically pleasing. Different sizes. Odd shapes. I much prefer some regularity. I can however find which one I want straight away.

I don’t like to be caught a notebook short either. So I have a little stack of Decomposition Notebooks in reserve. I won’t ever be found wanting something to write on.

I suspect that I got this habit of stockpiling notebooks from my father who used to bring home stationery from work. Very naughty of him. But still, he’s not going to get done for it now if I tell the world. He used to bring home pencils and biros too, but they were never quite as desirable in my eyes as the blue-covered government-issue memo book.(And while I’m confessing his sins there was also loo paper – for a long time I thought everyone had loo paper with South Australian Government printed on it because my primary school had this too.)

I’m well and truly over the memo book now. A memo book isn’t really good for writing anything but shopping lists. While I like a good list, I generally have more to write than is easily accommodated by a memo-sized book. I prefer a good A4 myself. And that’s the other thing that Decomposition Books have over Moleskines – they’re bigger. They take longer to fill up. And they really aren’t any more difficult to carry around.

I’m just about to start three new research projects and I’ve already got the notebooks out and labeled. There are however a couple more speculative projects in the pipeline, and this presents a problem – do I start a new notebook for the preliminary meetings and risk it not ever being filled up if the project falls through? Or do I write early notes on paper knowing that I’ll then have to stick them in a new notebook if the project happens…

Decisions, decisions. Always with the notebook some little decision still to be made.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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11 Responses to a good notebook

  1. Kim says:

    This post did make me smile, as only moments ago i got up to collect my own research notebook from my bag! For me the weapon of choice is still Moleskine and with all the new colours, sizes and pretty designs (Peanuts is a current favourite) its easy to find the relevant book. One thing i did wonder from reading your post was what type of information you record in there? At times i find myself querying what i should or should not include.


  2. angevf says:

    Oh I like this. The fetishisation of stationary…..
    Am currently enjoying some lovely perfectly sized and hugely affordable notebooks from Lidl! Honestly….


    • Oooh yes, fetishisation of stationary as the LBD of the ethnographer’s toolkit! When I went to New York on a fellowship I splashed out on a Cavallini & Co. journal, but I’ve written recently about my favourite notebooks – http://wp.me/p4TJTj-cd – buffalo journals from Typo Shop in Australia, which feel more luxe & more resilient than standard Moleskins.

      Choosing a notebook for a project, as your stack attests, Pat, is about giving the project tactile form, tangible value and a place for its story to unfold. Your stack shows how those blank canvases have evolved into a historical repository of your research.

      Happy notebook-filling!



  3. colin mills says:

    Hi. Thanks. Love it! Where do you get your notebooks, Pat? Colin


  4. germankiwide says:

    really enjoyed the post. I recently switched from Moleskine to a company called Leuchtturm1917. Smoother paper and page numbers plus a table of content you can fill out, also comes with a range of stickers for the front and the spine.
    But I also use notebooks I got as a gift, plus there is a really nice store around from my office which I like to visit from time to time to see what they have.


  5. Irene says:

    I’m using Leuchturm1917 too, love that the pages are already numbered!

    I was thinking, if you wanted to make your all black books more distinctive you could probably put some Washi tape on the spine/around the edges. It comes in lots of patterns and colours and should stick long term (although I must admit, I haven’t tried it … am about to though).


  6. Last time I was in America I got a leather cover that my moleskin notebooks fit into. I love a new notebook. And I love my now slightly battered leather cover. A new project and me notebook is one of life’s great pleasures


  7. Dawn Wink says:

    Ah, the joys and potential of a new notebook! I’ve discovered I’m a snob about few things – pens, notebooks, and coffee seem to be the only things. And I find myself ever-more specific about these. I embrace this. My own notebooks: https://dawnwink.wordpress.com/2014/12/16/why-i-write-in-my-journal/. Wonderful to meet another traveler!


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